Peacock, ‘great citizen,’ honored with Massey Award
James Peacock recalls a conversation with Julius Chambers,
director of the Center for Civil Rights in the School of Law, who spoke of two
kinds of scholars.
The first spend their entire careers doing nothing but
scholarly research and getting it published. The second balance their scholarly
endeavors with something else for which they have a purpose or passion. The
legacy this second group leaves extends well beyond the library shelf.
Peacock’s long, distinguished record of scholarship and
service at Carolina leaves little doubt into which category he would fall
– except maybe with Peacock himself.
When notified last spring that he had been one of six people
chosen for a 2008 C. Knox Massey Award, his first reaction was that they had
surely gotten the wrong guy.
Peacock had nominated someone else for the Massey who he
thought to be far more deserving of the award than himself, just as he had
throughout his 42 years at the University.
One of the people who knew otherwise was the late Ron Hyatt,
a longtime friend of Peacock’s and a Massey winner himself. Hyatt was among a
handful of faculty colleagues who through the years doggedly nominated Peacock
for the award.
Hyatt, in his nominating letter, spoke of Peacock’s “quiet
and unassuming manner” that endeared him to the faculty combined with a
willingness to listen that marked him as a leader.
Hyatt also described his friend as a Methodist, a Rotarian
and a “lover and supporter of UNC” who, along with his wife, Florence, had long
supported the arts in Chapel Hill, the University library and the Morehead
Planetarium and Science Center.
Then Hyatt called Peacock what so many others have called
him: a great citizen.
A boy’s curiosity grown large
Peacock’s interest in anthropology was planted in his
imagination by a book about British cavemen that his father sent home from
England in 1944 just before he was sent to fight
Peacock was 6 at the time and his family lived with his
grandmother in rural Alabama. It was here Peacock pretended to be a caveman
himself, running after wild beasts with a club made of a stick and rock he had
tied together to look like the clubs pictured in the book.
— Peacock in 1968
A friend rekindled Peacock’s interest in the subject years
later when he invited Peacock to join him for an annual anthropology conference
in Washington D.C. Peacock was an undergraduate at Duke University, about to
graduate magna cum laude in psychology.
The conference unveiled a way of studying the human
condition, with the world as a laboratory. Peacock launched that quest at
Harvard University, where in 1965 he earned his Ph.D. in social anthropology.
But he found his real laboratory three years before, the day
after he married Florence, when the couple took off for Surabaja, Indonesia.
There, during the next year Peacock completed his field research for his
It was not much of a honeymoon, but for a young scholar, he
said, Indonesia proved to be romantic in its own way.
His task was to capture life under Sukarno, who became the
first president of Indonesia in 1945 after it won independence from the
Netherlands. The couple lived in a slum with a family of 12 children during
what could arguably have been one of the most desperate and dangerous periods
in the country’s history.
“Right after we left, they had a sort of massacre of maybe a
million people who were alleged Communists,” Peacock said. “They were killed by
the Army. Many others were imprisoned, including people I had been working
with.” (The 1983 movie “The Year of Living Dangerously” offered a glimpse of
that violence, he said.)
In 1965, Peacock was hired to help start Princeton
University’s anthropology department, but left after two years when he was
lured to Carolina to join the anthropology department.
Peacock returned to Indonesia in 1969 and 1970 to do field
research on the Muslim reformation in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and he
went back many times in the following decades.
But Chapel Hill was the place he called home. In 1973,
Peacock was named a full professor and in 1987 became Kenan Professor of
Anthropology. In 1990, he served as chair of the anthropology department, and
from 1991 to 1994, was chair of the Faculty Council.
‘Public or perish’
Last November, during a conference of the American
Anthropological Association in San Francisco, someone put together a review of
his life’s work.
Peacock, however, wasn’t impressed. “I don’t have a cure for
cancer,” he said.
Maybe it is this humility about his work that compelled him
to contribute in so many ways apart from it. When pressed, Peacock awkwardly
acknowledged that he came up with “two or three useful ideas” within
This spring, at a conference of the Association for Asian
Studies, a scheduled speaker will present a paper titled “A Man Ahead of His
Time” about Peacock.
“OK,” Peacock said, “what I presumably did ahead of my time
was to recognize the rise and importance of Islam in Indonesia and other parts
of the world. That was back in the early ’70s, so I sort of nailed this
Peacock is quick to point out that the potential for
violence is inherent in all religions, not only Islam. And he does not let
Christianity off the hook. Still, he draws comfort from something his friend
Bill Peck, professor emeritus in religious studies, once told him.
“Bill said that Christianity is somewhat distinctive in the
idea of original sin. The main point is that it assumes people are guilty,
sinful, and therefore, we tend to blame ourselves instead of always blaming
Peacock is also credited with grasping the significance that
symbols play across all cultures. “That may seem trivial because it is so
obvious to most anybody, but there was a time when that was not appreciated
adequately by anthropologists or others,” Peacock said.
A third contribution lies at the intersection where
citizenship and scholarship sometimes meet and become one, a place Peacock has
often put himself. Peacock spoke about that in 1995 while serving as president
of the American Anthropological Association in a speech he titled “Public or
“What I tried to say in that talk was to address issues of
significance in society,” Peacock said. “Be relevant. That is so obvious, yet
at that time for a lot of reasons there was a tendency to demean people, within
my field and other academic fields, who tried to do that.”
By then, Peacock had long been practicing what he preached.
As faculty chair at Carolina in the early 1990s, for
instance, he established the 12-member Executive Committee, which remains a
vital instrument for faculty governance.
At that time, he also helped lead the faculty effort to
reach out to the state legislature in a constructive way. “The relationship
with the legislature before then had been to criticize them or to protest,”
Peacock said. “We decided to go to Raleigh and actually meet them and find out
what they were up to.”
In 2002, while serving as head of the University Center for
International Studies (now the Center for Global Initiatives), Peacock led the
push to make Carolina, in partnership with Duke, a Rotary Center for
The Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies, one of
only seven in the world, has produced some 50 graduates who are now working
across the globe to deal with obstacles to international cooperation and peace
such as famine, poverty and disease.
But to Peacock, none of these achievements quite measures up
to being worthy of winning a Massey. “I don’t deserve this thing because it is
a service award and there are people doing far more incredible things than I,”
he said, characteristically.
What makes the Massey so special is that it can be won by
anyone on campus, he said. In that sense, it has become one of those symbols of
the “UNC ethos” that both the citizen and the scientist in him can fully